My first glance of Kabul
Afghanistan was once a pearl of the ancient Silk Road and while years of conflict has taken its toll, the country and its people have shown tremendous resilience. Before coming to Kabul, what I knew about it was mainly poverty and war. My new job at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Afghanistan gives me the opportunity to see the country from a different perspective.
Kabul in summer is green, peaceful and quiet. The mountains in the background are dotted with colorful houses that shimmer in the summer heat. The 100th Anniversary of Afghan Independence Day is just around the corner. The streets and alleys are full of national flags crowded by commuters and pedestrians on their way to work. The shopfronts are full of goods laid out orderly for shoppers – indeed the whole city is in festive atmosphere. This is quite a contrast from the Kabul I had imagined. Only the heavy security presence and armed check points remind me that the country is still waiting for peace.
Afghanistan’s agriculture and its challenges
As a landlocked farming and pastoralist country, Afghanistan enjoys a superior geographical location linking the East and the West where various cultures converge. Three decades of conflict have, however, taken their toll with an increase in the number of poor people (more than 50 percent of Afghans are living in poverty – the majority in rural areas). Agriculture is still the backbone of Afghanistan’s economy, accounting for about 23 percent of its national GDP. Around 60 percent of Afghan households derive some income from agriculture, and the agro-industry still employs about 40 percent of its national workforce. Agriculture is also a major foreign exchange earner – as of 2016, agricultural products accounted for almost 60% percent of total exports. However, due to frequent droughts and water scarcity, insufficient arable lands, lack of infrastructure, a difficult security situation, and the impact of climate change, the country’s agricultural development is facing enormous challenges.
Afghanistan and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Afghanistan was listed by the United Nations (UN) as one of the Least Developed Countries in the world in 1971. The UN is committed to help Afghanistan eradicate poverty at an early date and support the country to achieve its SDG targets. Afghanistan’s stability and prosperity is also vital to regional peace and economic development. As an important partner of China’s “One Belt, One Road Initiative” (BRI), Afghanistan was one of the early countries to sign the BRI Memorandum with China in 2016. Over the years, the Afghan people, together with the UN and other international partners, have jointly faced the challenges and endeavored to improve Afghanistan’s agriculture and livelihoods. Much has been achieved through international partnerships and collaboration in the cause of constructing a better Afghanistan, however a lot still remains to be done.
FAO Afghanistan works and achieves
FAO has been actively supporting Afghanistan’s agricultural development for many years. As the UN’s key technical agency specializing in agriculture, FAO is mandated to eliminate hunger, poverty and malnutrition. It has 194 member countries around the world with a presence in 130 countries, led by Dongyu Qu, the newly elected Director General who took office at the beginning of August.
FAO began its work in Afghanistan in the 1950s. The current FAO Representative, Rajendra Aryal, has an indissoluble bond with Afghanistan. He first worked in Afghanistan in 2002 and joined the FAO area office in Herat in 2003. Aryal returned to Afghanistan several times in more recent years on backstopping missions, before transferring to Kabul to take up the lead role of FAO Representative. Today, the FAO Representation in Kabul has a pool of highly qualified and committed staff under his leadership that contribute to the growth of the agriculture sector together with the Government of Afghanistan and are working in nearly every province.
FAO is not confined within the UN compound, but works out of Government premises, working side by side with the Government counterparts, which makes it unique in itself. It made me think FAO as ‘Pinming Sanlang’, a Chinese expression referring to someone devoted to achieve something at any cost. For nearly two decades, FAO has worked closely with a wide range of partners, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL), Ministry of Energy and Water (MEW), Afghanistan Food Security and Nutrition Agenda (AFSeN-A) Secretariat, other relevant government line departments, universities, international donors as well as international and local non-profit organizations. Taking into account of the agricultural development priorities of the national guidelines (such as the National Comprehensive Agriculture Development Priority Program), FAO has made great contributions to promote agricultural and economic development in Afghanistan, ensuring food and nutrition security of Afghan people.
FAO has mobilized significant resources to build a pool of projects to help Afghanistan address rural livelihoods, climate change impacts, and meet people’s food security and nutritional needs. As droughts and lack of arable lands are the bottlenecks for Afghanistan’s agricultural development, FAO’s irrigation programs carried out nation-wide have largely contributed to transform its irrigation infrastructure. In just seven years, Afghanistan gained nearly one million hectares of new arable lands, which has largely contributed to the livelihoods of more than 12 million farmers. Wheat is the main crop for local people, and FAO’s wheat program enabled the country to develop certified wheat seeds through the private sector. In addition, FAO helped the country to improve its agricultural product standards and assisted in expanding Afghanistan’s access to domestic and international trade opportunities. For example, the establishment of a national dairy product standard and value chain through FAO’s intervention has tripled the incomes of Afghan dairy farmers in several districts. Meanwhile, FAO has continued to focus on strengthening the capacity of local women. The poultry project has, through the course of a decade, trained more than 70,000 rural women. Women were also trained to cultivate high-value crops such as saffron, which has considerably improved the economic status of Afghan’s rural women, hence in the longer run, promoted their overall social development.
Agro-trade between Afghanistan and China
China regards Afghanistan as an important BRI partner. According to the Chinese Embassy in Afghanistan, the trade volume between China and Afghanistan has been maintained at an annual average of US$1 billion. China and Afghanistan have signed several agreements enabling Afghan agricultural products such as pine nuts and saffron to trade to China. According to the agreement between the two countries, since November 2018, China has imported about 1,250 tons of pine nuts worth of US$ 14 million. Many Afghan traders have been doing business with China for years and even established some sub-branch companies in several provinces in China. China-Afghanistan trade in the agriculture sectors has resulted in mutual benefits: Afghan farmers and merchants made profits, and Chinese consumers enjoyed the delicious Afghan products.
FAO Afghanistan team ensures delivery in any circumstances
In summary, I am highly impressed by the achievements made by the FAO team here.
During the first week here in Kabul, I also experienced the first explosion in my life, which was only about three blocks away from our office. I felt the floor shaking. With my heart pounding and the sound of the explosion still reverberating in my ears, I looked around the office, and was amazed to find my colleagues working with their usual calmness and patience. At this moment, I could not help but feeling so impressed by the courage, resilience, and motivation of the FAO staff under such a difficult situation. I pondered how FAO team could deliver supporting thousands and thousands of farmers and herders across the country in such difficult environment.
At this moment, I felt myself being a bit emotional; not because I was scared but somewhat sad, for the UN employees and local people who work and live in this environment. In this corner of the world full of unexpected situations, there is still a small group of unnoticed workers, risking their lives for developing agriculture in Afghanistan! It is their silent effort that brings hopes to the future. To survive, stay and deliver, it requires not only great courage but also great wisdom. They are indeed my most beloved and respectful people.
As Rajendra Aryal, FAO Representative in Afghanistan rightly says, “I am impressed of what we have achieved in Afghanistan, and I’m more impressed with the talented local and international staff who have worked hard over the years to ensure our projects improve economies and livelihoods in the communities they touch. I hope that you will be impressed by both FAO and the remarkable agriculture talents of Afghanistan too”. “Given the success and good practices FAO has achieved over the years, there is an excellent opportunity for FAO and China to work together in Afghanistan under the SDGs and BRI frameworks and successfully contribute to bring economic growth and development in the country”, he further adds.
Life is precious, and a better life is hard to come by. Bearing this in mind, I hope to present this article to all my colleagues whom I truly admire in FAO Afghanistan, who have worked fearlessly and smartly for the cause of economic growth and development.
This content is provided by China Daily
My first glance of Kabul